Becoming American: Refugees share tales of horror, hope, and achieving U.S. citizenship

“Remember, remember always, that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”—Franklin D. Roosevelt

Since the first European settlers arrived some 400 years ago, America has been a land that holds promise for those fleeing oppressive tyranny and the terror of their war-torn and famine-stricken home countries. Last year, according to statistics from the Department of Homeland Security, the United States welcomed nearly 60,000 refugees from nations around the globe, many of whom arrived with little more than the clothes on their backs.

And while debate over comprehensive immigration reform rages at the highest level of United States government, the refugees who arrive here with U.S approval face an arduous journey toward citizenship and self-sufficiency.

Charlottesville is a hub for refugees thanks to the presence of the International Rescue Committee, a non-profit that works closely with the U.S. Department of State to place and support refugees as they assimilate. IRC caseworkers help find newly arrived refugees homes, jobs, and education opportunities.

"For the most part, the refugees who come here are highly motivated to make a successful life in the U.S.," says Harriet Kuhr, executive director of the IRC in Charlottesville, which brings 200 refugees to the area each year. "They're looking for themselves, but they're also focused on security and opportunity for their children."

To become a naturalized citizen, individuals must achieve fluency in English, be in the country legally for at least five years, and pass a written exam. When those requirements are complete, there is arguably no more patriotic naturalization ceremony in the country than the one that takes place every July 4 at Monticello. 

Since 1962, more than 3,000 people have become citizens on the steps of Thomas Jefferson's home, welcomed to their new country by speakers that have included U.S. presidents, most recently George W. Bush in 2008, as well as famous authors, political leaders, and athletes, including 2012 speaker Olympic medalist Nadia Comineci, the Romanian gymnast who thrilled the world by scoring a perfect 10 in the 1976 Olympics.

This year, South African-born rock star Dave Matthews will address the newly minted citizens.

"It resonates with the new citizens when the speaker is a naturalized citizen like Dave Matthews," says Ann Taylor, executive vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the nonprofit that owns and operates Monticello. Taylor notes that Matthews "went to great lengths to be our speaker this year, returning to Charlottesville for the ceremony between performances." The Dave Matthews Band will perform in New York on July 3 and in Wisconsin on July 5.

While the event is a thrill for those receiving their citizenship, it's also a powerful reminder for anyone who attends that while democracy may be messy at times, America remains a beacon for fresh starts and freedom. Refugees know that. Sometimes those of us born here need a reminder.

Caught in the crossfire

Living under the shadow of war was nothing new for Farah Ibrahim, who was raised in a Baghdad suburb and, now age 36, was a child during both the Iran-Iraq war, which began in 1980, and during the second Gulf War in 1990-'91. But even with violent conflict all around, she says, the wars didn't directly affect her life because her parents— both pharmacists— provided Ibrahim and her two brothers with a stable home, stressing education above all.

"We were happy," says Ibrahim. "That was our life, even though we were under that regime that kept getting us into war after war."

One can only adjust so far, however, and when the Iraq War began in 2003, there was no escaping the horrors as the family's home in a southwest suburb of Baghdad—less than 45 minutes from Fallujah and just 10 minutes from Abu Ghraib— put them in a hot spot for insurgency.

"The first Gulf War seems like a picnic compared to this one," recalls Ibrahim, who says during the Iraq War, the road she and her family lived on linked the airport to the American Green Zone, and was therefore a primary target for attack.

While the family remained in the country for the next two years, Ibrahim says, her younger brother Adel, a dentist, was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2005 while on a trip to Jordan. With the healthcare infrastructure broken in Iraq, Adel had to remain in Jordan for brain surgery and follow-up care. His mother, Juhiza Khamis, and Ibrahim accompanied him for a check-up in 2006, and while they were away, the war became personal.

Ibrahim's older brother, Haidir, a pharmacist like his parents, went to a Baghdad police station to report that his car had been stolen by militia. The police, Ibrahim says, were also militia.

"When he left the police department, they shot him," says Ibrahim, who was pregnant with her daughter at the time of her brother's death.

Devastated by the loss, Ibrahim briefly returned to Iraq where she joined her husband, Mahmmoud, a nuclear engineer, in the northern Iraqi province of Kirkuk, and gave birth, but she then fled back to Jordan with her infant daughter, hoping to find a way to take her family out of their native land for good. When her husband tried to join her in Jordan, officials turned him away. Ibrahim says there was no choice but to continue on without him.

"You can't go back; you know that your life is going to be ending soon, and you don't want to watch loved ones getting killed," says Ibrahim.

Within a year, she says, she, her mother, her brother and her daughter were granted approval to come to the United States. Her mother and brother arrived in Charlottesville in December 2007; Ibrahim and her daughter followed in early 2008. Ibrahim's husband arrived here two and half years later, but her own father, who had applied to be resettled with his family in America, was diagnosed with cancer and, without access to proper care, died in Baghdad still waiting for his immigration paperwork to be approved.

While Juhiza was able to visit her husband one time, Ibrahim and Adel were not. "We were never able to see him again," says Ibrahim, as her mother, sitting nearby, begins to weep.

Gathered in Juhiza's Hydraulic Road apartment just a few doors down from her own, Ibrahim, her mother and her brother agree that in addition to the losses they've suffered, coming to America has been difficult in another way: all are trained professionals, but in this new country, they are unable to work in their chosen fields without pursuing time-consuming and costly certifications.

"My mom has it the hardest because she can't practice here," says Ibrahim, who worked as a civil engineer in Iraq, noting that her husband, too, must seek another line of work. He currently works in maintenance for the Omni hotel.

Adel alone plans to return to his previous profession and has passed the dental boards. He plans to complete this country's clinical training requirements and hopes that he'll be able to work as a dentist within a few years. In the meantime, he has worked as a cashier and in sales.

Ibrahim found work with the International Rescue Committee as a translator and as a receptionist, and she'll soon become a full-time caseworker. Ibrahim and her daughter became U.S. citizens in May, two months after Juhiza. Adel will receive his citizenship at the Monticello Naturalization Ceremony on July 4.

For all the hardships and loss the family has faced, they say the promise of America is the promise of a future. Becoming citizens is a step toward healing and making a new home.

"It's making it official, this secure feeling that we have here, that it is our right, our place," says Ibrahim. "We have it written on paper that we belong here."

Fleeing Somalia

When Yussuf Yussuf and his family first saw throngs of people streaming past their farm in southeastern Somalia in 1992, the year that country's ongoing civil war began, they scoffed at the warnings the passersby offered as they fled.

"We laughed," says Yussuf, who was 12 at the time. "The war was far away to us, and we never thought it would make it to our home."

That changed in a single night, the now 33-year-old father of four recalls, when the family awoke to find their animals— goats, cows, chickens— stolen by rebels.

Suddenly, the war was upon them.

With no vehicles remaining in their village and their livelihood gone, Yussuf, his parents and his four siblings joined a group he estimates to have been 500 strong on what would be a several-week journey on foot through the forest to the Kenyan border.

The conditions were brutal, says Yussuf, who says the refugees had only the food and water they could carry. Some hadn't brought enough to survive.

"I could hear people calling out,"  says Yussuf, briefly overcome by emotion as he recalls the voice of a man pleading for help and his parents explaining to him and his siblings that there was nothing they could do to save the dying man.

Yussuf and his family arrived safely at the Kenyan border, he says, but their ordeal was just beginning. During the processing of the refugees, Yussuf was separated from his parents and siblings. He wouldn't see them again for two years.

"I thought they had gone back to Somalia," recalls Yussuf, who was taken in by another family that eventually helped him locate his parents and siblings in another camp. Yussuf eventually found work as a translator and an outreach worker for the UN thanks to his fluency in three languages— Somali, English, and Swahili— and in 2004, at age 24, he was one of the thousands of Bantus, a Somali ethnic minority, who arrived in the United States.

Even though he spoke English, language was a challenge at first, says Yussuf, who came with his wife to Charlottesville and first found work with the IRC's assistance as a translator, and in housekeeping and guest services at the Boar's Head Inn.

Today, Yussuf, whose wife is expecting the couples' fifth son in the fall, continues to work as an interpreter and also works in maintenance at Monticello, where he became a citizen last summer at the annual naturalization ceremony after finding inspiration watching President George W. Bush at the ceremony in 2008.

"He gave me a lot of hope," says Yussuf, who's now also taking classes at PVCC in IT and law enforcement. He's teaching his own children the value of freedom— and an education.

"I teach them what I went through," he says. "I don't want them to be in that situation. They say, 'I want to go back to Africa and see what it looks like.' Hopefully, I will take them back there one day and see."

Born in exile
When Nathan Keh received word that he and his wife had been granted asylum in the United States, he was excited but also apprehensive. Born in a Burmese refugee camp in Thailand, he'd grown up without electricity, living in a bamboo hut.

"I'd never even been to a city," says Keh, 29, whose family are "Karen," an ethnic minority in Myanmar— the Asian country that borders Thailand and was previously known as Burma. 

Life in the camps was hard, says Keh, but education was possible thanks to UN efforts, and Keh received schooling that enabled him to achieve proficiency in English before he arrived in America.

Keh recalls the stressful transcontinental flight that brought him, his wife, and other Burmese refugees to Dulles International Airport in 2007 en route to Charlottesville.

"We could read English, but we were afraid to ask for help," he recalls.

With no one to help them find their connecting flight to Charlottesville— refugee workers greet new arrivals at their final destinations— Keh says he and his group huddled in a corner of the airport for hours, unsure where to go or what to do until an act of kindness he still remembers with clarity.

"One of the airport janitors saw us lying there," says Keh. "He came over, looked at our tickets, then rode with us to the gate."

Once in Charlottesville, Keh says, he was at first fearful that he'd be unable to find work.

"I had never worked in a city or town," says Keh, who changed his first name from Yansar to Nathan. "I didn't know what kind of work I'd be able to do."

Because his English was already strong, Keh quickly found work as a translator while his wife found work first as a housekeeper, and then, when her English improved, in a daycare center.

After the required five years in the counry, Keh says, achieving citizenship— which he did earlier this year in a courthouse ceremony— was thrilling.

"I was a refugee for my whole life," he says, "labeled as a stateless citizen."

Now a full-time caseworker with the IRC and the father of a four-year-old daughter, Keh says his work gives him meaning.

"I kind of feel great because I also experienced difficulty and was hoping to get help from someone," he says. "You feel good when you help someone who is in need and is experiencing the same.